It can be hard to believe thinking back now: Just 36 months ago Stephanie Murphy was, to almost all in Florida politics, a virtual political nobody whom few took seriously as an election challenger to Central Florida’s reigning congressional heavyweight champion.
Today Murphy is a two-term congresswoman and one of the hottest Democrats in the nation, while that heavyweight, the once legendary 12-term Republican U.S. Rep. John Mica, is retired.
In quick course, Murphy, representing Florida’s 7th Congressional District covering Seminole County and much of northern and central Orange County, also has become the leader of congressional Democrats’ moderate wing, capable of delivering or denying significant blocs of votes for Nancy Pelosi on issues ranging from her speakership bid to border security.
She has also secured her place in CD 7 with a compelling life story, an ability to talk business to business leaders, and foreign policy with everyone on any level.
That has made Murphy the third most powerful elected official in the Florida Politics Central Florida 25 most Powerful Politicians survey, and the most powerful person not wearing the title “Mayor.”
Murphy, of Winter Park, who still is only 40, wears that “moderate” label awkwardly. She is unabashed in her Democratic positions on gun control, abortion, gay rights, Civil Rights, and other social issues, and has been a frequent and strong critic of the rhetoric and style of President Donald Trump, though she has not called for impeachment hearings like her colleague U.S. Rep. Val Demings.
Yet Murphy, a business consultant and former national security analyst with a personal story of having been a child in a family that fled communist Vietnam, has defined more moderate positions for herself in the realms of national security, federal budgeting and the economy. That led her to rise to leadership of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus and the Democrats’ Blue Dogs Coalition, as well as of the Democrats’ Future Forum, a group of young members of Congress.
The combination has made her a tough target for Republicans. Chambers of Commerce and other business groups, as well as veterans organizations, have come to endorse her. And young voters are being drawn to her Future Forum agenda and social issue positions. Her 2018 re-election victory, in a district once completely owned by the GOP, was far easier than Republicans might ever have let themselves fear.
“Congresswoman Murphy is a breath of fresh air in Central Florida politics. Having immigrated to the United States from Vietnam at a very young age, she has a unique perspective on the things that make our community among the most desirable places anywhere in the world to live or visit,” said Derek Bruce, managing shareholder at Gunster in Orlando. “Through her family, she has seen the downsides to communist systems and has been an outspoken advocate within her party for the virtues of our economic system, eschewing calls to abandon capitalism in favor of socialist policies.”
And there are those images of her working with Republicans such as U.S. Rep. Michael Waltz of neighboring Congressional District 6, on election security matters, while also joining Democrats such as Demings and U.S. Rep. Darren Soto on a variety of Democrats’ priorities.
Murphy also has become adept at working behind the scenes, as she did earlier this month in helping craft the Democrats’ minimum wage bill. Pelosi and the more progressive Democrats wanted to push it through, setting a timetable for an ultimate $15 federal minimum wage, and, in the short term, to set up another legislative showdown with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Murphy quietly convinced the Democratic leadership they would be better served, and might even be able to alleviate some Senate Republican opposition if the bill passed the House with a significant majority, rather than on a tight vote. She pledged she could help deliver such a majority if changes were made to moderate the bill.
Pelosi bought in, the bill was amended, and Murphy delivered the party’s moderate voters.
A similar scenario led to last month’s congressional approval of a border security funding bill. After the Senate overwhelmingly approved a bipartisan bill, the House Democrats had to reconcile their strong opposition to Trump’s border security priorities and funding for their own priorities. Murphy set out to make sure there was little internal disagreement and helped deliver votes that led to overwhelming approval in the House.
“Her willingness to stand up on issues like national security as well as stand up to contrary voices within her own party enabled her to win re-election in 2018 in what many observers described as one of the toughest incumbent House races in the country,” Bruce said. “Do not be surprised if you see Rep. Murphy as a candidate for statewide office in the near future.”